Monday, March 31, 2008

Prioritising UNISON Conference

Where could you go on the internet if you wanted an overlong description of how the agenda for UNISON National Delegate Conference is put together?

Wellthinking back

In spite of the large number of motions (and Amendments to Rule) which have been ruled out of order by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) this year in the run up to UNISON’s National Delegate Conference, there remain more items on the Preliminary Agenda than it will be possible to debate during Conference week. Whether any particular motion will be debated will depend upon where it is in the order of business.

The order of business is set by the SOC (who have discretion under Rule to do this) but in setting the order of business have regard to the outcome of a prioritisation process. UNISON’s Regions, Self-Organised Groups, Service Groups and the NEC itself express preferences, in order of priority for which motions should be debated.

A Region, for example, can prioritise twelve motions in order. How the Region does this is a matter for the Region. It could be done by the Regional Committee for example. In the Greater London Region it is traditionally done by a straw poll of branches in which the preferences of each branch have equal weight regardless of membership. Regional Self-Organised Groups also get a “vote” in this process.

The top priority of a Region is awarded twelve “points” all the way down to the twelfth priority which gets one “point”. SOC aggregate the scores from all the Regions and other bodies which express preferences and use these to structure the agenda in two ways.

First, only “prioritised motions” (i.e. those which obtain a minimum of one “point” in the process) have any chance at all of being debated at Conference. Non-prioritised motions are not debated, and in general SOC will not allow non-prioritised motions to be part of Composites with prioritised motions.

Secondly, those with the most points generally get debated first. This works in two ways. Some of the highest prioritised motions are timetabled for debate at a specific point in the week. Others sit at the top of the “remaining order of business” also known as the snake.

Where more than one motion on the same topic is prioritised the lower priority motions may be moved up the agenda so that Conference only debates each topic once, and SOC clearly do exercise some judgement about the order of business so that the “points” are not necessarily adhered to too rigidly.

All prioritised motions, no matter how far down the order of business, are available for reprioritisation in the brief period on Friday afternoon when Conference delegates decide by ballot which motions to deal with. Equally, not all prioritised motions (other than those timetabled or very high up the “snake”) are guaranteed to be debated.

Any motions, prioritised or not, which are not debated at Conference (or withdrawn from the agenda by the proposers) are referred at the close of Conference to the National Executive Council (NEC) who determine UNISON policy on the motion (generally by reaffirming existing policy).

Therefore in determining which motions to try to prioritise the following points need to be borne in mind;
Are there important motions which no one else may prioritise but which it may be possible to get some priority in the hope that they can be reprioritised for the Friday afternoon?
Are there important motions which may not attract sufficient support to be guaranteed debate (as has recently happened with motions from the National Black Members self-organised group)?
Are the NEC likely to support or oppose the motion? (bearing in mind that it may be particularly important to prioritise debate on motions opposed by the NEC since Conference is the only opportunity for a debate on such motions)

An alternative approach would simply be to pick what seem to be the twelve most important topics, but since Regions, the NEC and Self-Organised Groups are all likely to prioritise the motions which they themselves are moving (and since these are likely to reflect the key priorities for the Union) this approach risks leaving other issues completely off the agenda.

All of which begs the question of what to actually prioritise…

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Islington on pay

The following Motion put to Islington’s AGM today was passed unanimously, the part in italics was and amendment moved from the floor by someone who felt one day strikes was not enough and we needed to take much more sustained action. It nice to know the membership can be in advance of the leadership even in Islington Branch!

EMERGENCY MOTION ON PAY

The branch AGM notes that the employers have offered only 2.2% which has been rejected by the NJC trade union side.
The branch AGM further notes this is some considerably distance away from the unions claim of 6% and also significantly below the rate of inflation based on RPI which is currently running at over 4%.

The Trade Union Side has agreed to meet with employers again in early April however it is unlikely that the offer would be significantly improved upon.

The branch also believes after the yes vote in last November’s Industrial Action Ballot there is no need for any further consultation with the membership prior to moving to a formal industrial action ballot. If there is a yes vote we need to move to sustained strike action.

The AGM calls for UNISON side of the NJC also the service group executive to move to an industrial action ballot with immediate effect and to coordinate all industrial action with other sector of Unison and other public service unions.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

UNISON's opposition to nuclear power


Call me an 80s retread hippy environmentalist if you will but I find the news that the Government are gung ho for nuclear power alarming. I’ve pointed out before that UNISON is at odds with Gordon Brown on this. UNISON has policy in opposition to nuclear power.

The arguments for nuclear power are predictable ones about job creation and uber-Blairite Hutton says that nuclear power will be the new North Sea oil. North Sea oil was dangerous – but this doesn’t really compare with this. Nuclear power is criminally dangerous and creates radioactive waste which we have no long term plans for.

We do face an energy crisis, but it needs to be tackled by radical reductions in our use of energy and by developing renewables – not by trying to breathe life into the nuclear industry.

Green issues have a higher profile within our Union than ever before – and there are several motions on climate change on the Preliminary Agenda for National Delegate Conference which would lend themselves to an appropriate anti-nuclear amendment because nuclear power is not the answer to climate change.

Motion 107 from Camden includes appropriate anti-nuclear sentiments which could be added by amendment to other motions more likely to be prioritised in order to ensure that UNISON’s opposition to nuclear power is clearly restated in the composite on Climate Change which will probably be one of the key debates at this year’s Conference.
As readers of this blog will probably know, only those Conference motions which are prioritised are available for debate and compositing at Conference. Motions from the NEC and Regions are most likely to be prioritised, so amendments to motions 103, 104 and 105 look like a good idea.
(If anyone reading this supports nuclear power I suggest that we bring all the radioactive waste round your house then?)



A bit out of order?

Just a brief note as I am busy working.

I am sure all UNISON members reading this blog will share my disappointment that an apparent bid by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) for our National Delegate Conference to make it into the Guiness Book of Records seems likely to have failed.

It appears that the SOC wanted to be the first ever to rule out of order more motions to National Delegate Conference than they admitted to the agenda. Unfortunately;

(1) (with thanks to the Croydon branch for the maths) just 48.5% of all submissions to Conference have been ruled out of order (it would be cheating to count only those submissions not made by the NEC in order to push the figure above 50%), and;

(2) it appears that there is no such section of the Guiness Book of Records!

More here later about this (more than you want probably...)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Can local government workers stomach strike action over pay?

A hat tip (as we bloggers say) to John McDermott for doing some maths about the very limited value of a 2.2% pay offer as has just been made to local government workers. John makes the point that we cannot afford this real pay cut.

Some anonymous comment on an earlier post here has however taken issue with the conclusion which I have drawn that we need national strike action in response to this offer (even if it goes up to 2.5% in the next few weeks).

It’s probably wrong of me but I tend to associate such anonymous comments with a political group noted for both anonymity and hostility to national strike action over public sector pay. However the arguments against strike action will be used by the employers as well as by right-wingers within the movement, and it is important that those of us who are loyal to the interests of UNISON and its members can engage with these arguments.

It is through engaging in debate with our members that we will be able to determine whether we can in fact deliver the action which will be needed to secure a satisfactory pay settlement.

There are those who see the role of trade union leadership as essentially passive – they believe that the leadership should strive to reflect the views of the membership and treat these views as if they were static – like the commentator on this blog who asks if there is the “stomach” for strike action.

I don’t share this perspective. I believe that the role of trade union leadership (which means everyone from General Secretary all the way up to a shop steward) is to seek to develop a strategy which can advance the interests of the members and then to win our members to support that strategy – in part that therefore involves trying to persuade members to take action and to make sacrifices. Whether we can win such arguments depends upon how persuasive and convincing our strategy and our arguments are.

The two main arguments against strike action are (1) that it won’t work and (2) that the costs will outweigh the benefits. These interact of course because no pay strike is likely to end in outright victory (i.e. the employers conceding our full claim) and it is therefore possible to compare the value of what is achieved (in terms of an increase in an initial offer) with the cost of the action to the strikers (in terms of loss of pay).

I have suggested previously on this blog that there is some reasonably persuasive recent historical evidence that national strike action over local government pay can improve local government pay relative to the rest of the economy. A more recent example of the potential effectiveness of national local government strike action is, of course the strike action we took in 2006 over local government pensions – while I was sceptical of the official verdict that this secured a “victory” there can be no doubt that the Government was shifted from its original position.

The evidence is that we do have the industrial muscle to secure a better pay offer (the question obviously is whether we have a strategy to exercise this muscle in the right way – and I will come back to that in a later post).

For members trying to decide, collectively and individually, whether to support a call for strike action, as well as the critical question of how they judge the Union’s strategy and its likely effectiveness, there is also the “cost-benefit analysis” – the comparison of pay lost through strike action with likely gains from taking the action.

One commentator on this blog said “I've worked out that for every day I go on strike the pay offer will have to increase by about 0.5% for me to recover the loss in the days wages in this pay year” and they were answered – in part – by the next commentator who pointed out that “if you do go on strike and management cave in, the 0.5% per day you 'lose' is then made up by the fact that whatever increase you have increases the 'base salary' year on year.”

In fact, if pay is deducted at the rate of 1/260th of annual salary for each day of strike action (as decided in UNISON’s recent legal victory) then that is 0.38% of annual salary for every day of strike action. Four days of strike action would need to see an increase in the employers’ offer of 1.5% in order to make good the loss of earnings in the same pay year – an increase of 0.755% in the employers’ offer would make good the loss within two pay years – an increase of 0.525% in three years (the principle is rather more important than the precise figures).

There are two important caveats to this calculation. The first is that a successful pay strike can have a knock on effect on pay offers in future years, the positive effect of which is not captured by these figures. The second is that these calculations can only be done after the event, whereas the decision about whether or not to support strike action has to be taken (rather obviously) in advance. The members deciding whether or not to take strike action have to make judgements about how much action will be required and what the likely outcome will be – in the public sector in particular these are judgements about politics not about arithmetic.

So what it all comes back to is whether we – the leadership of the Union – can advance a strategy which persuades our members that the sacrifice of strike action is worth making. That is what determines whether there is “the stomach” for strike action. That is what we need to be discussing…

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Poor pay offer demands strike ballot

Yes – an initial 2.2% pay offer is indeed a “slap in the face” to local government workers. The Trade Union Side was unanimous in condemning the offer, which attaches strings to a basic pay offer below even the current CPI level of 2.5%.

We should be responding with honesty and clarity.

We need to be honest with our members about the rate of inflation – we don’t need to care about the CPI index which does not reflect the cost of living. We have to acknowledge that a pay rise below the Retail Price Index (RPI) will be a real terms pay cut. If 2.2% is a slap in the face, 2.5% will be a poke in the eye.

We also have to be clear that we are not going to get anywhere near a pay rise which keeps pace with real price inflation without national strike action. That is why it is not helpful or encouraging to hear that there will be further negotiations on 2 April. That’s too late.

Our pay rise is due on 1 April. Every day that passes beyond that date in 2008 without moves towards a strike ballot will be a day on which members will start to conclude that we are not serious.

Winning a strike ballot will not be easy and winning a better pay deal will not be easy. We may not win. However if we genuinely believe in the justice of the claim which we have submitted we owe it to our members to offer a strategy which could win us an offer closer to our claim.

I believe that the evidence is that national strike action could do this and that we ought to offer our members the opportunity to support action which can win – and to do so now.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

UNISON Regional Committee and the standing orders for the Regional Council

I knew the title of this post would grab your attention...

I shall be sorry to miss tomorrow’s meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Committee (honestly! I enjoy Regional Committees) and shall invite other comrades to let us know here what excitement takes place.

One topic which is covered in the report from the Regional Convenor and Secretary to tomorrow’s meeting is the vexed question of the arrangements for the Standing Orders Committee function for the Regional Council (i.e. who decides what gets admitted to the agenda and what does not).

For those with long memories you may recall reading about this here before.

Long ago when UNISON was young there was a Standing Orders Committee for the Regional Council, a body so engaged by its function that it recommended that it cease to exist and that its functions pass to the Regional Committee.

Eventually, perhaps because the Regional Committee was often admirably liberal in what it would permit to be debated at the Regional Council, officers felt that it was inappropriate that the Regional Committee should fulfil this function, citing a “conflict of interest.”

And, although there are other Regions where such an approach appears not to be a problem, most of those interested in this debate could see the point. The Regional Secretary identified two options for the carrying out of the Standing Orders function – both of them consisting of small sub groups of the Regional Committee (either the Regional Finance Team or the Regional Council Officers Group).

More than a year ago at the Regional Committee a third option was suggested – an elected Standing Orders Committee independent of the Regional Committee. There followed a process of “consultation” with branches which covered only the two options identified by the Regional Secretary and not the third proposed by an experienced and respected Regional Committee member.

A small minority of branches responded and a fair few backed the option which had not even been included in the consultation, but slightly fewer backed one of the other options (giving the job to the Regional Council Officers team) and this was then imposed without any sanction of either the Regional Council or Regional Committee.

To date the Regional Council has not agreed to this change. At the Annual General Meeting last month both options were put to the vote and neither commanded the two thirds majority required to change the rules. Votes were counted but the results were not announced (though it was pretty clear that the option of an elected Standing Orders Committee, for which the case was put more convincingly, commanded the greater support).

In the light of this decision I was hoping to see a compromise suggestion from the Regional leadership, taking seriously their responsibility for unifying the Union in Greater London. Instead I was disappointed to read a proposal that an option which had specifically not been approved by the Regional Council should continue and that the Regional Council Officers should continue to provide the Standing Orders function for the Regional Council.

Whilst technically the Regional Committee may decide to delegate this responsibility in this way, to do so in the face of the Regional Council decision seems bizarre.

I have suggested a possible compromise to the Regional Convenor and Secretary. I hope that the Regional Committee will reflect on this and will try to reach out and unite our Union. We face something of a crisis of activism and engagement in the Region (as evidenced by the disappearance of branch bids to the Regional Pool over the recent period) and this will only change if we all try to reach out and work constructively together.

I wish good luck to all those who go to tomorrow’s Regional Committee hoping to build and strengthen UNISON.

Update on Wednesday 19 May - news from Mabels is that the Regional Committee did agree, by a majority, to delegate its standing orders functions in respect of the Regional Council to the Regional Council Officers group, although the Regional Council itself had not agreed this.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

More statistics on pay...

While we're waiting for the Pay Review Body in the NHS and the meeting of the Executive of the National Joint Council in local government, here's a little picture stolen shamelessly from the excellent "Campaign Teacher" to show why the likely offer of 2.5% or so is rubbish.

It's not about "breaking the 2% pay norm" now - it's about beating the rate of price inflation. And that's the Retail Price Index (RPI = real price inflation) not the Consumer Price Index (CPI = con-trick price inflation).

Perhaps someone who's a bit more artistic than me can do better with the graphic?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Haringey local government branch AGM

It’s good to learn of progress in negotiations in the dispute over Birmingham’s pay and grading review. I hope that the detail of offers being made (and those being accepted) can be shared more widely in the Union.

Whatever view members in Birmingham take of the current state of negotiations it is clear that the dispute shows that strike action can shift the employers – in other words, strike action works.

This is a point I made (perhaps a little predictably) yesterday to the well attended Annual General Meeting of the Haringey local government branch, at which I spoke about the national local government pay claim, pointing out how our pay has fallen behind rising prices, and how the evidence of the past is that national local government pay strikes can improve the pay of local government workers.

Sonya Howard, from Kensington and Chelsea branch, who also addressed the meeting, gave a wide ranging and well received overview of the challenges facing UNISON in local government.

The branch also agreed a very positive policy to promote and development environmental activism as an integral part of our Union (Green UNISON as it is now being called). Will environmental activism given an impetus to our organisation – and recruit new activists (as our work on the learning agenda has to some extent) – or will it just be more demands upon the time of a few?

Since climate change has destructive potential equivalent in the long term to the threat we faced (rather more immediately) from nuclear war in the 1980s we probably need to pay attention to the issue regardless of its implications for our organisation of course!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Too busy for lay democracy?

Whenever two or more UNISON activists are gathered together you know we’ll end up complaining about how busy we are at some point, it’s right up there with other favourite discussion topics like “improbable victories at disciplinary hearings” and sharing good and bad information about senior HR managers as they progress between employers.

Well today we learned that our paid officials (and particularly our senior paid officials) are much busier than we are (so no doubt we should stop moaning!)

The UNISON Greater London Regional Office has today cancelled, with a little less than one day’s notice, tomorrow’s Annual Meeting of the UNISON Greater London Regional Local Government Committee because of ill health.

I understand that we need not fear that a bug has hit dozens of our staff - the ill health in question is only of a couple of key colleagues. I am sure that I will join with every other UNISON member in the Region in sending best wishes to colleagues who are unwell and wishing them a speedy return to good health.

There will be those who will be perplexed that the Region can find no other officials with appropriate seniority or experience to support the meeting proceeding as planned, bearing in mind that delegates representing 80,000 UNISON members in the local government service group in the Greater London Region will have made arrangements to attend.

Obviously without the presence of the Regional Head of Service Group it would not be possible to do everything as well as we would wish – some reports would have to have been deferred. However, any official could have sat beside the Chair and assisted with the basic business of the AGM (elections and so forth). I take it that most readers of this blog are union activists and will appreciate just what an extreme step it is to cancel an Annual Meeting, particularly of such a key Committee (meeting on the brink of a likely pay dispute in UNISON’s largest service group).

I don’t doubt that there will be those who will not receive the message about the cancellation of the meeting at such short notice in spite of the best efforts of the Regional Office to cancel the meeting.

Perhaps however we should be reassured and impressed that all the other members of our Regional Management Team and all of the many experienced and capable officials servicing our members in local government are so busy with work of vital importance that they cannot cancel their commitments tomorrow to enable the Annual Meeting of the Regional Local Government Committee to go ahead…

I really don’t quite know how to feel about this.